I’ve written about companion characters before and discussed how much I enjoy them. The DM PC has always been feared by D&D groups before and I find that playing as a CC (companion character) has always been a great way to play a little as DM and not steal the show. I’ve also greatly enjoyed the opportunities the CC has opened up for me. Being able to remind players of objectives or little details, leading them a little through a session, or even just full out rail roading them becomes much more acceptable when doing it through an ally. I’ve discovered it’s much easier to bring out an NPC’s backstory by making them into an official party member and letting the players see how this new guy operates in battle, skill challenges, and role play. Overall, I love the CC as a DM.
The companion character is also great for something else. Not screwing over your plans when trying to organize a session. I have a core group of players who are almost always ready to roll dice when we organize a session. Not only are they ready to play but they are willing to try new things, they role play extensively, and best of all two of them skype in from halfway across the country. These players are more than any DM could hope for. Now this is not to rag on the others who drop in and out of my game, let’s be honest everyone has more important things to do than to play D&D, but three is such a…difficult number. Three core players means only three of four roles covered in the game, no doubling up on important party roles, and an unbalanced variety of skills. Trying to run a 4th Edition game with three players can be a challenge and yet I have learned that it has its advantages.
CCs can be awesome
I almost always throw in a companion character into the group when we are a little under-staffed. It’s a challenge to create one that fills out a controller role because their powers require a bit more book keeping, but I will always strive to make a character that is of actual use to the party and not put them at a disadvantage. Beyond the actual mechanical issues with not having four full players, the real advantage to using CCs is the time it takes to run encounters and the social aspect of the game. I have seen on twitter, blogs, and forums many complaints about the run time for encounters, skill challenges, and overall decision making. 4th Edition was originally hailed as a vast improvement over 3rd in terms of encounter length. I’ve found three player parties with a fourth companion character move incredibly fast through encounters. You’re generally designing encounters with only three players who have to worry about their myriad of powers options, smaller numbers of enemies, and one significantly less complicated NPC. There are less player turns, the DM has less monsters to run, and the companion character has only a couple options available to him. On top of all of that I found monster types really shine with smaller parties. Minions last longer and remain a nuisance, Brutes feel like proper lumbering monsters and don’t get hacked down so easily, and artillery have an easier time of focusing fire on the players. Running 4th edition with a smaller party feels pretty stripped down and runs exceptionally well. Which brings me to…
The part of my games that probably take as long as, if not more, than combat is decision making. I have found that 2-3 people in a regular conversation is the optimal number when you’re having any kind of in depth discussion. When it comes to a game like D&D where I try to give my players a sand box, they will take forever to choose their next step. Do they steal a boat? Investigate a haunted cemetary? Go shopping? These are fun don’t get me wrong, but flipping through the Adventurer’s Vaults and MME to give them an inventory of things to buy from can get tedious. In a group of three players there are a significantly smaller number of ideas to pass around and discuss. Not only does combat speed up but the choices the party has to make requires less time to make. Many of my players will speak bluntly in smaller groups and simply point a specific objective they want to achieve. As long as the other two at the table can find something they can get out of it, they are already out the tavern door spoiling for a fight. It’s not unheard of for my games to either finish early or go through more than two to three encounters per session when I run a smaller party.
Due to the announcement of 5th edition, the community surrounding the current edition of the game has kind of died down. The old complaints that 4e is bogged down with too much ‘stuff’ have resurfaced and people are quickly abandoning the game and biding their time for the next shiny new edition. So what I suggest for all you DMs out there is get yourself a group of three players (the lower the level the better), write up a great companion character, and start running some adventures. You may discover that a smaller party just might rekindle your love for this edition. Who knows you might just start a whole new campaign.